Have you ever been curious about the origin of the balisong, where it came from and what it was used for? Well today I’m going to do my best to educate you on it! Let’s get right into it!
The history and origin of the balisong is surprisingly controversial! There are two proposed origins of the knife: some sources indicate that the knife style originated in the Philippines, and others propose a European origin.
The balisong’s history has been discussed and debated many times by knife enthusiasts and it still remains a mystery. No matter the exact origin, the knife has become an emblematic Philippine export.
Adding to the mystery of this knife, the etymology of the word balisong itself isn't known for sure (See Balisong Knife Butterfly's Balisong history post for further reading).
Some have said that “balisong” is just a word with no meaning, while others say it originated from a location in the Philippines.
There are a few books written about the balisong, and the authors all give their own definition and origin of the name. One example is “The Balisong Manual” by Jeff Imada, where he states that "bali" means “break” and "sung" means “horn”, as balisong handles used to be made of animal horns, especially caribou horns.
This would mean the original name was “balisung”. The same thing is said by author Tai Jo in his book “Balisong Knife”, where he explains that the name translates to “broken horn”.
However, in Tom Wei Ding and Tom Wei Toi’s book “The Manipulation Manual for the Balisong Knife”, they claim that the word means “sharp knife.”
Either way, it seems evident that the name “balisong” originated in the Philippines, while the hyphenated version “Bali-song” is a Trademark of the Benchmade Knife Company.
Theories and Debates
Oral histories claim that butterfly knives were first created in the Philippines around 800 AD, although there is no documentation or solid evidence to back this up.
However, balisong mass production in the Philippines was occurring in the early 1900s. These types of knives can still be found in the Philippines, where they are handmade by skilled craftsmen.
No matter where butterfly knives originated, the modern balisong was perfected in the Philippines, where it was an inexpensive tool, weapon, and later as a premium product with a martial art to complement its functions.
Introduction to the US
Historical introduction and import of the first butterfly knives into the US is also another mystery. One theory claims that the balisong came to the US sometime between the 18th and 19th centuries as a derivative knife from the French pied du roi measuring tools of the era.
Pied Du Roi measuring tool (source: Musée de l'Orfèvrerie of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation)
Other theories include Filipino immigrants bringing these knives with them to the US, European soldiers or immigrants bringing their pied du roi and it evolving to become a modernized balisong, or a returning US citizen who visited either location.
What is known is that the true popularity of the butterfly knife in the US began with US soldiers bringing theirs back as heirlooms or collection items following deployment to the Philippines during and after World War II.
This explosion in popularity led to mass production, growing association of the knife with criminal elements (thanks in part to movies and popular media), and the eventual outlawing of balisongs in many jurisdictions.
Benchmade knife company also deserves significant credit for beginning the manufacturing of high quality balisong knives in the US, starting with the Model 68 in 1980.
The Modern Balisong
Today the balisong is a popular type of knife, used as both a cutting tool and as a hobby knife for its fun flipping capabilities. There now exists an entire community of people that flip the knives and do tricks called “flippers”.
There are also trainer balisongs, with unsharpened blades for practicing tricks without any risk of harm. One of the most prominent trainer companies is Squid Industries.
There are many balisong options now, ranging from budget-friendly and safe trainers like the trainers made by Squid Industries to robust flipper-made knives, such as the knives made by Bladerunners Systems and HOM Design.
There are still makers of classic balisong designs, such as Authentic Balisongs made in the Philippines. These makers pass on their skills and knowledge from generation to generation.
Although the true origin and history of the balisong is a mystery yet to be solved, it’s an interesting topic to look into and discuss. The balisong has evolved from a simple tool and weapon into a full hobby and with a new modernized community, which helps butterfly knives develop and keep the craft alive.
A special thanks to Balisong Knife Butterfly for the research reference!
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